In The Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman points to the almost 37,000 non-government organizations, or NGOs, and the fallacies and corruption that surrounds them. She points to the system of humanitarian aid itself, and uses specific examples, like that of the aid offered in the stereotypical “developing” countries Haiti, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Goma, to explain how it has failed victims across the world.
From my readings, I have perceived that the principal concerns that Linda Polman raises in her book are:
- Humanitarian aid is often not effective because it has become a part of modern warfare strategy.
- Humanitarian aid is often not neutral.
- Humanitarian aid organizations are often self-serving.
Humanitarian aid is often not effective because it has become a part of modern warfare strategy.
As touched on many times in Polman’s book, humanitarian aid is being used by members of both sides in their warfare tactics. Refugee camps and hospitals are being attacked by “the bad guys” in the dead of night. Camps are treating both the good and the evil. This, in Polman’s eyes, could be said to prolong wars and create more conflict than they resolve. Polman brings up the question if maybe doing nothing is better than doing something in some cases because of situations like this. This feeds into the next contention.
Humanitarian aid is often not neutral.
Modern humanitarian aid is taking sides. They are often not remaining neutral, like in the old days of the Red Cross. This is sometimes not their fault, because opposition is pressuring them to behave in certain ways. Sometimes, it is impossible for them to remain neutral in order to remain safe.
Humanitarian aid organizations are often self-serving.
Just like any business, humanitarian aid likes to take a cut of the profits it receives. Not only that, but a cycle of taking cuts of donor dollars has been accepted in many situations. An NGO may give money to an agency in the country it is trying to help, who takes 20 percent, and then they give it to hospitals, etc. who also take 20 percent. By the time the aid reaches the afflicted people, it has been downsized incredibly by people taking small cuts of donations along the way.
On page 177 in her book, Polman says that “aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa” because these non-government organizations state that they are trying to save humanity and help the world, but they are often caught up in the three contentions mentioned earlier. These organizations run like businesses. They are corrupted (not every one, however) by the same corruptions that affect corporations and governments. They, however, are able to hide more easily behind a cloak of innocence due to their role in society as the “savior.” And thanks in part to lots of advertising and donor reassurance, these businesses in Mother Teresa’s clothing are often able to easily convince to citizens that their money is being used in a positive way. In some ways, some NGOs’ tactics to gain donor support verge on propaganda.
The media, the public, and governments play directly into NGOs’ role as this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The media is the liaison of information from these NGOs to the public. They are responsible for showing things that are timely and newsworthy, but that often distorts how the public sees global issues and hinders NGOs in their ability to do things the right way. Some events receive mass amounts of coverage, therefore, NGOs race to be the first and best on the scene, as in Haiti after the earthquake. In order for humanitarian aid to be successful, the media needs to offer a more well-rounded and truly global view of world issues instead of focusing on one event and covering it until its beaten to a pulp, all while ignoring other pertinent issues.
The public needs to be educated. They need to look further into things that what NGOs, the media, and the government presents upfront. The public must ask questions and follow the money that they send to NGOs. The public must be interested in more than sending a $500 check and feeling good about themselves. The public needs to hold NGOs accountable, and most importantly, they must look outside the big issues that draw attention and ask, “What else is going on in the world?” For humanitarian aid to be successful, the public must be interested, curious, and they must care.
The government’s role in making humanitarian aid successful is the most complex out of the three. I believe, from my perception of the contentions in The Crisis Caravan, that the government must be willing to pave the way for NGOs to do their job correctly. Our government must take an interest in global issues that have to do with social responsibility, not just economic plunder. If our government were to support and work directly with NGOs, then they could decide how to use donor dollars in efficient and effective ways. Currently, most of the world’s humanitarian aid is provided by governments. If these governments could work with and for NGOs, then more donor dollars could be allocated correctly, which may reduce some burden on governments to provide for the world. In short, NGOs cannot do everything by themselves. They need a little bit of help and protection in areas so that their aid is not useless, as said above.